Trial restarts as Anwar’s future in doubt

By David Chance, Free Malaysia Today

KUALA LUMPUR: Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim’s year-long trial for sodomy restarted today as questions grew over his leadership abilities and as the government readied for elections in the bellwether state of Sarawak in April.

Anwar, 63, says the charge, which could see him jailed for 20 years, is part of a political plot that mirrors his dismissal as finance minister in 1998 and convictions for corruption and sodomy, something the government of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak denies.

With Anwar tied up in court, Najib’s approval ratings have surged and promises of economic reforms by the government have impressed foreign investors, although they are waiting for implementation before turning bullish.

Najib does not need to hold polls until 2013, but his rising popularity and strong economic data have prompted analysts to expect the general election to be held in late 2011 or early 2012.

The trial has been slowed by frequent appeals from Anwar’s lawyers seeking access to medical evidence, trying to get the case and the judge dismissed, all of which have failed. The prolonged trial has failed to generate the excitement of 1998, when tens of thousands rallied for Anwar.

Today, medical evidence related to the charge that Anwar sodomised a young male aide was heard after Anwar returned from Washington where he was quoted by the Malaysian daily Utusan as saying last week that he had “one foot in parliament and one foot in jail”.

Anwar’s PKR has been hit by a wave of defections, and his leadership of the three-party opposition, which also groups a secular, largely ethnic Chinese party and an Islamist party, has come under question.

“Anwar has been distracted by the trial,” said James Chin, political analyst at the Monash University campus in Kuala Lumpur.

Anwar in September 2008 claimed that he could win over enough defectors from the Barisan Nasional coalition that has ruled this Southeast Asian country of 28 million people for over half a century. But he has seen a string of by-election successes come to an end.

The government has replaced a lacklustre leader with Najib in 2009, and Najib has seen his approval ratings rise to 69% from 45% when he took office, according to independent pollster the Merdeka Centre.

PKR the weakest link

Najib has announced a series of economic reforms aimed at winning back investor confidence in a country. Malaysia had once accounted for almost a third of foreign direct investment into Southeast Asia, but such investment has now fallen off sharply.

Investors are now more concerned about whether those reforms will be implemented than about the prospect that the government could lose power at the next general election.

The 2008 polls, which saw the government lose its iron-clad two-thirds majority in parliament and drove the opposition to power in five of Malaysia’s 13 states, caused the country’s stock market to crash by 9.5% the day after the results were announced.

Political analysts say that Najib looks set to call elections well before the 2013 date by which they must be held, possibly as early as the last quarter of 2011 and say that with Anwar tied up in court, his PKR party could fare badly.

“The real problem with Anwar’s trial is that if PKR ends up with the lowest number of seats in the next election, the (opposition) leadership will go to PAS or the DAP,” said Monash University’s Chin.